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Paul Maholm’s first start of the year was a rough one. Last night, he couldn’t command his pitches, and couldn’t get out of the first inning before he’d given up five runs.

But you know as well as I do that a player cannot be judged on one game, a pitcher on one start. Especially if there’s an explanation for that game.

Maholm didn’t offer one for his rough outing, probably not wanting to seem like he was making excuses after his first start in Chicago. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the cold – Brewers reliever Francisco Rodriguez said it was the coldest game, when considering the wind, that he’d ever pitched in – was affecting Maholm’s grip. Pitching in Chicago, especially straight after coming from Mesa, Arizona, can be a rough adjustment.

Then again, Maholm spent his entire career in Pittsburgh, where the average high and low temperatures in April – 62 degrees and 40 degrees – are pretty similar to Chicago (59 degrees and 40 degrees). So, shouldn’t he be well-adjusted to the cold by now?

Well, here’s where I can offer you a small amount of reassurance: April has always been a tougher month for Maholm. His career ERA in April (and March) is 4.46, his second worst month behind August. So, maybe it’s to be expected that he’ll struggle a bit early in the cold before turning it on in the Summer.

Then again, his overall career ERA is 4.39, so it’s not as if his April numbers are that far off for him. As I said, it’s only a small amount of reassurance. I think the fact that last night was just one start is going to have to carry the weight of your reassurance today.

And that’s particularly true after you dig into Maholm’s advanced stats from last year.

In 2011, a season Maholm ended on the shelf with shoulder problems, was, at first glance, his best season in a long time. He sported a 3.66 ERA and a 1.294 WHIP, both excellent figures. His WHIP had been better just once before in his career (2008), but his ERA had never been better in a full season. His strikeouts were in line with where they’d been historically, and he walked slightly fewer batters than usual (2.8 per 9, versus a career 3.0 mark). He turned 29 last year, and, as a soft-tossing lefty, it was a conceivable narrative that he was just starting his peak years. Perhaps the Cubs really had gotten a bargain when they signed Maholm to a one-year, $4.75 million deal with a $6.5 million club option for 2013 (or a $500K buyout).

But, wait a minute. Other teams aren’t stupid, and they’re always looking for starting pitching. Based on that narrative, and those numbers, there’s no way the Cubs should have gotten Maholm so cheaply. If it wasn’t the shoulder injury (and his quick return suggests it wasn’t), why did other teams pass on a cheap, effective lefty starting pitcher in his prime?

It could be that the numbers behind the numbers suggest Maholm’s 2011 season wasn’t as good as it looked, and, before 2011, suggest Maholm could actually be regressing, not improving, as he ages.

Taking a look at Maholm’s advanced statistics, a number of things jump out at me about 2011, none of them particularly encouraging. First, Maholm’s FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching – a stat that approximates an ERA-like figure, but attempts to remove the “help” that a pitcher received from his defense) and his xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, which is like FIP but removes the luck associated with home runs from the equation) were both worse than his ERA. Maholm’s FIP was 3.78 and his xFIP was 4.03, both higher than his 3.66 ERA. That suggests he was lucky and/or helped by a quality defense last year. That suggestion is confirmed by Maholm’s unusually low BABIP last year – on balls in play, batters hit just .286 off of Maholm last year, far below his career .309 mark.

Maybe Maholm just really got his ground ball on last year, which led to fewer hits? Not so. In fact, Maholm’s 49.9% ground ball rate last year was the lowest of his career. Indeed, Maholm’s ground ball rate has dropped each of the last four seasons after a career-best mark in 2008 (53.6%). For a guy who doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts, that’s a troubling trend.

And then there are the home runs. A big part of the reason Maholm’s ERA was so low last year was because he gave up so few home runs – just 0.61 HR/9. Maybe Maholm just got better at not giving up home runs? Eh. I doubt it. While Maholm’s HR/FB percentage (the percentage of fly balls given up that result in a home run) has been consistently extremely low the last three seasons (between 7.3 and 7.7%), those three years come on the heels of three straight years where his HR/FB percentage was awful (between 12.1 and 12.8%). Neither extreme tends to be sustainable, and, if Maholm settles in around league average this year, he’s going to give up quite a few more home runs (as we saw last night).

One final bit cutting against the quality of Maholm’s 2011 season: he stranded a whole lot of runners. Maholm’s left on base percentage rose dramatically in 2011 to 72.1%, after being just 64.8% and 69.2% in the preceding two seasons. His 72.1% mark from 2011 was better than league average, and the figure tends to regress to average. In other words, Maholm is likely not to strand quite as many runners this year as he did last year.

All in all, the sabermetric story on Maholm is not a particularly reassuring one. His 2011 was still good by a number of measures, but expecting a repeat of his 3.66 ERA and 1.294 WHIP this year is probably unreasonable. Too much of his success, according to the numbers, was the product of a fluke.

For now, let’s just hope that Maholm’s start last night’s was more of a fluke than his 2011 season.

  • Martin

    Could someone explain why MLB doesn’t have some common sense when it comes to scheduling? Why are the Cubs and Brewers playing a series in April at open-air Wrigley when there’s a domed stadium 45 minutes north? It’s not like this would be a massive change in scheduling needs for all 30 teams–this is a minor change that would have improved the conditions for this series dramatically.

    • Spencer

      I’d rather play at home than on the road, regardless of weather.

      • Andrew

        Overall you would play the same amount at home and on the road, but I agree that we should flip this series with one where were in milwaukee in june or july. I think the Cubs and myself would much rather have more home games in june, july or august than in early april, but then again every baseball team wants more summer home games so it has to be somewhat evenly distributed.

        • Martin

          With this series, I think the Brewers would get sell-out level attendance regardless, especially considering they’re indoors. This situation seems like it could have been an easy fix.

          • Andrew

            I don’t know what the brewers normally draw for april series but the point is that given the choice, any owner would rather be at home in june than april, and therefore in the interest of fairness, the schedule can’t intentionally give more home games in june to teams in cold climates than teams in warm/domed climates.

  • Cubs style

    Thanks for the great info Brett. I get that no one should be judged on one start. But in my opinion he looked way worse than his stats showed. His pitches are really straight, and slow. He also has absolutely no movement, and doesn’t hide the ball at all. I hope I am wrong, but I would be shocked if he became effective this year. He literally looks like a BP pitcher.

  • TonyP

    Dump him,  he is a sunk cost.  :-)

  • Andrew

    If Maholm has an era of 4.03, his xFIP last year, at the end of the year, I think that would be great. I would be happy with it around 4.3-.4.4 which all seem relatively attainable figures. This is our 5 starter after all so while he cant do what he did last night every night, if his average start is something kinda close to like 6 innings 3 ER given up, thats more production from a 5 starter than a good amount of teams have. All in all, its one start and a lot of good pitchers had crappy first starts lets see how it goes.

  • Ron Swanson

    This kind of article is exactly why Bleacher Nation is the best. Well done and thanks for the analysis, Brett.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      Thanks, Ron. I try.

    • Wilbur

      Agreed

  • Puma0821

    How many starts do you give Maholm until you call up Wood if he keeps pitching well/with comand? Maholm could slide riight into the pen

    • Cubs style

      I would move Maholm to the pen immediately… He seemed like he was no where near ready to start. But I am sure he’ll get at least 2 more starts.

  • cubbylair

    I’m going to add more gas to the fire. If my memory correct I remember Bob Brenley commenting about Maholm. He said if Maholm is in close game he’ll give up a home run in the 6th or 7th inning. The particular game that he made that statement is exactly what occurred.
    I’m not paticularly thrilled with the new regime’s trades or pick ups. The exception could be Rizzo and,of course, they had to dump Zambrano.

  • Kyle

    I wasn’t expecting Maholm to repeat his 3.6 ERA from last season. Something in the 4.2-4.5 range is what I’m expecting, and that’ll be just fine for a one-year placeholder who might net something marginal at the deadline.

    • Cubs Dude

      I’d be shocked if Maholm had an era under 4.5 this year. No velocity, no movement, no craftyness means he completely sucks ass. Glorified BP pitcher… I know it was one start, but I liked nothing about what i saw of Maholm yesterday.

      • hansman1982

        is craftyness the pitcher equivalent of scrappiness?

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

          Haha.

        • Cubs Dude

          I’m good with that. Usually people with shitty stuff like Maholm have something else, not sure what that word would be so I went with craftyness. May be a stretch…

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